Specific Actions to Change the Way Caregiving is Understood in (Academic) Workplaces

I was both heartened and saddened by the responses I received to my last post on being a caregiver in academia. Many fellow academics and plenty of folks in other fields reached out to me to say that they, too, are caregivers and they wish that part of themselves didn’t have to be so compartmentalized. With that in mind, this post focuses on specific actions we can take to change the way caregiving is understood in academic (and other) workplaces.

Before I get to those recommendations, however, I want to mention a piece on caregiving that the New York Times published just a few days after my post: “The Costly, Painful, Lonely Burden of Care” by Mara Altman. Altman reports that the economic value of caregiving by family members is upward of $470 billion a year, and the bulk of this work is performed by women. This means that women are more likely to suffer the consequences I mentioned last week—stigmatization and professional isolation—as well as burnout, social isolation, financial consequences, and “negative health impacts.” Altman interviews Kate Washington, author of a new book on burnout, Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America, about these costs. I was particularly struck by a statement Washington made on how the economic value of all the free caregiving provided by mostly women is minimized:

There is a narrative that the caregiving work we do is invaluable and the gift of caring is its own reward, but the flip side of something being priceless is that you paradoxically strip it of all its value. It’s so valuable that we can’t put a monetary price on it, which then takes away the economic worth.

Mara Altman, “The Costly, Painful, Lonely Burden of Care”

Because we live in a neoliberal society, we are conditioned to devalue anything without economic worth. You would think that academics, of all people, because so much of the work we do we do for “free” (all that service!), would be sensitive to this, but no, neoliberalism is in the air we breathe and so we are conditioned to not notice these discrepancies.

Which brings me to those specific actions I want to focus on:

  1. Talk about caregiving in your normal voice. Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter highlighted how normal caregiving is when she said, “There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.” It is very likely that every one of us will be or need a caregiver in our lifetime. In other words, caregiving is normal, not strange or embarrassing or the result of poor choices. Acknowledge caregiving as a valuable activity. If you are not a caregiver, talk about it in your normal indoor voice rather than a hushed one. Every time you talk about caregiving in a hushed voice, you imply that it’s something that should be kept quiet. If you are a caregiver, and if it feels safe to you to do so, talk about caregiving the same way you talk about your other non-work activities. If the only time we mention that we are caregivers is when we need support, the idea that caregivers are needy drains on productivity is reinforced.
  2. Notice and label ableist tendencies that stigmatize caregiving. These tendencies include bragging about not taking leave, shaming folks who do take leave, and assuming that all time that is not accounted for by time-bounded work activities is “available.” When I catch myself doing these things, I find it helpful to identify the assumptions I’m working from and fact check them, so I might say to myself, “Seeing that colleague as lazy for taking so much leave assumes they don’t work hard when they are not on leave. Is that true?”
  3. Connect with others who are caregivers in academia. This is tough because, as I said last week, we don’t talk about caregiving in academia and folks without tenure and others in vulnerable positions may feel the risk involved in making the caregiver part of their identity visible is too much. When those of us who do have job security and other privilege make the caregiver part of our identity visible, we make it easier for others with less privilege to do it. I’ve added the word caregiver to my twitter profile and website tagline to make that part of my identity more visible and make it easier for other caregivers to find me.
  4. Create workplaces that support caregivers. One of the simplest yet most powerful ways to support caregivers is to talk about caregiving. As I said last week, when we don’t talk about caregiving, it becomes harder to talk about caregiving. The opposite of that is also true: when we talk about caregiving, it becomes easier to talk about caregiving. When it’s easier to talk about caregiving, it’s also easier to identify caregivers in the workplace, and it’s easier for them to ask for the support they need. For faculty, one of the most challenging forms of support we need is teaching coverage; when I became a caregiver, a colleague who is herself a caregiver told me she was available to cover my classes if I needed it. When such a program doesn’t exist, the free labor of caregiving leads to the free labor of kind colleagues who are willing to cover classes. All that free labor tends to be women’s free labor. A formal program to make teaching coverage available to those who need it would go a long way toward supporting caregivers and closing an equity gap in academia.